Sunday, September 26, 2021

A Murder in Vinton Iowa


Myrtle Cook

Myrtle Cook’s death contained all the elements of a good murder mystery—the Ku-Klux-Klan, rum runners, and an estranged husband who fumbled some of the details of his alibi.

Cook, age 51, was shot to death in her Vinton, Iowa home at 703 Third Avenue on September 7, 1925. The assassin crept up to her living room window, peered inside to ensure his victim was within range and fired. Myrtle was writing a speech for the next day’s W. C. T. U. (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) meeting when the bullet pierced her heart.


She lived long enough to whisper what many people thought was her killer’s name to her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Cook. However, the police took that evidence with a grain of salt. The man she implicated was a prominent Vinton businessman considered to be above reproach.


Myrtle’s husband, Clifford B. Cook, wasn’t so sure. He said the family re-enacted the crime to determine if his wife was able to see her killer. “A person on the outside could not have looked up in her face without putting his own face directly in the light.”  So, it wasn’t improbable that Myrtle saw her killer.[1]

Investigators initially assumed liquor runners might have had a part in the attack since Myrtle was an ardent prohibitionist and urged strict enforcement of the prohibition laws. She was constantly harping on the mayor, sheriff, and state officials to go after the criminals.

Myrtle served as a one-person anti-prohibition force in Vinton, tipping officials off to suspected bootleggers. She wrote down license plate numbers of cars she suspected of liquor running and kept copious notes on her neighbors.


Not too long before she died, Myrtle got Merlin Swartzbaugh arrested for running liquor. He implicated Wayne Snader, a cabaret owner in a nearby town. Snader was arrested and charged with bootlegging and selling alcohol to minors.


Myrtle also tipped the authorities off that S. A. Ullom, a local druggist, was selling liquor under the counter.[2] So, she likely had plenty of enemies. Not just the rum runners and bootleggers but those who enjoyed tossing down a cold one now and then, too.


A week after Myrtle’s murder, state agents chased after Harold Ponder. He had escaped from the Fort Madison Penitentiary on August 18. Ponder was last seen traveling near Thompson, Illinois, in a stolen seven-passenger Buick touring car.


Clifford Cook

It was thought the boys might know something about the murder, but they didn’t. So, it turned out to be another dead end.


The primary suspect was Clifford B. Cook, the dead woman’s husband. He had been in Sioux City when his wife was killed.


Apparently, he’d drawn a diagram of his residence and shared it with several boarders at the home where he stayed in Sioux City. Cook brushed the importance of the drawing off, saying he’d made it while discussing the house’s layout.


Detectives weren’t sure what to think. They couldn’t say Clifford was involved in the crime, but they believed he knew more than he was letting on.[6]


What really stuck out was the couple’s strange relationship. Clifford had not lived at their Vinton home for the past five years. Instead, he worked various jobs that kept him on the road—driving trucks, selling, etc.


He saw his wife and sixteen-year-old daughter, Gertrude, once every two or three weeks—or whenever he had a chance to drive back. When he worked in Waverly, Myrtle would drive up and see him almost every week.[7] And he said they corresponded regularly, sending letters back and forth every two weeks. So, they weren’t separated or divorced, but not altogether a couple, either, if that made sense.


Clifford had been working for the American Monument Company in Sioux City. However, he had recently lost his job and could not find work there, so he headed back to Vinton on September 6.


“I stayed the night in Grundy Center because the roads were slippery,” said Cook. “When I drove up to my home, I saw crepe and flowers on the door.” His first thought was his elderly mother-in-law had died.


Then, his daughter ran out, sobbing, “Oh daddy, mama is gone.”[8]


Detectives quickly cleared him, and then… Three weeks later, there was talk that Clifford had perjured himself when questioned by detectives.


During another round of questioning, Clifford told investigators he spent most of the day his wife died with Hester Sieling. They roomed at the same boardinghouse in Sioux City.


The problem was he had previously told the coroner’s jury he didn’t know any women in Sioux City. His lawyer acknowledged that Clifford had been indiscreet in his relations, but that didn’t mean he killed his wife.[9]


The coroner’s inquest continued to focus on the relationship between Clifford Cook and Hester Sieling, but try as they might, they couldn’t connect the tryst to Myrtle Cook’s death. And Myrtle wasn’t insured, so Clifford didn’t have a financial interest in her death.[10]


Finally, the coroner’s jury determined that they could not name a killer but recommended that officials investigate Clifford Cook.[11]


For his part, Clifford was convinced his wife’s enemies had paid an assassin to silence her.


The town had been divided since prohibition. Iowa went dry in 1916, the rest of the country followed suit in 1920. “Our young people left the churches and went to cafes and dance pavilions,” he said. Then, desperate men came to sell liquor, and ever since, it’d been a fight between good and evil.


The churchgoers considered Myrtle a great leader. But, on the other hand, the anti-prohibitionists or the “wets” ridiculed her as a “meddler and a disagreeable gossip.”[12]


And, of course, other factors might have played into Myrtle Cook’s death.

She was president of the local chapter of the Iowa Women’s Christian Temperance Union and head of the Benton County Ku Klux Klan’s women’s organization. Someone might have killed her because of her Klan activities.


Or it could have been her temperance activities. Myrtle showed Marie Ruhl, Sheriff Ruhl’s wife, a commendation letter from the W. C. T. U. on the morning she died. Then, she said, “I believe this work will be the end of me yet.”[13] Before that, Myrtle had told her she “was a marked woman” and “had to be very careful.”


Or the murder might not have had anything to do with Myrtle Cook. John W. Tobin, in his 1986 book, Tobin Tales, said the Cook home was near the railroad tracks across from the passenger station. The area was a popular hangout for drunks, drug addicts, and other low lives. One of them might have shot Myrtle in a drunken or drug-addled fit. Many contemporary papers suggested just as much.


Reverend Blain Hyten, the pastor of the First Christ Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, took the opportunity to condemn lawyers and their part in the growing criminal element.

“The crime wave is the child of American society, and the underworld is encouraged by milk and water sympathy with criminals aided by the so-called great criminal lawyers.”

He blamed the recent crime sprees on the Clarence Darrows “eager to save criminals” from the “noose and prison.” So, they do “everything possible to cover their crimes, whitewash their guilt, and mitigate their punishment. But, of course, they are all insane.”

Worse still, “when they are caught, there is great public sympathy, and their names become household words.”[14]

It was one man’s opinion, but it summed up what a lot of people were thinking. Too many people were getting away with murder, and much of the public was okay with that. It even celebrated them.


Be that as it may, Myrtle Cook was dead, and the world would never know who killed her or why. However, it did bring a lot of attention to the situation in Vinton.


After Myrtle’s death, the W. C. T. U. sent a message to Iowa Governor John Hammill saying they believed a rum runner or bootlegger killed her. “City authorities here would not help her,” they said. Instead, “they were lenient with lawbreakers. [The] time has come when this town needs cleaning up.”[15]


The governor warned bootleggers, rum runners, and all criminals that they would be shown no quarter. “The laws are to be enforced to their fullest. All officers of the state are to participate to their utmost in this drive upon crime.” No leniency was to be shown.[16]


And, for a while, the Iowa Bureau of Investigation had eight men working the case.

[1] The Gazette. September 15, 1925.

[2] Sioux City Journal. September 10, 1925.

[3] The Gazette. September 14, 1925.

[4] The Gazette. November 16, 1925.

[5] Des Moines Tribunes. September 10, 1925.

[6] The Gazette. September 14, 1925.

[7] Sioux City Journal. September 12, 1925.

[8] Des Moines Tribune. September 12, 1925.

[9] Des Moines Tribune. September 30, 1925.

[10] Sioux City Journal. September 12, 1925.

[11] Davenport Democrat and Leader. October 1, 1925.

[12] Sioux City Journal. September 10, 1925.

[13] Des Moines Tribune. September 11, 1925.

[14] Sioux City Journal. September 14, 1925.

[15] Sioux City Journal. September 10, 1935.

[16] Sioux City Journal. September 10, 1935.

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